Susan McCord: Indiana Farmwife, Quilt-Making Genius
Susan McCord (at far right) with family at the McCord farm, about 1904. (with Susan, from left to right: Susan’s daughter Millie McCord Canaday, husband Green McCord, granddaughter Ruth Canaday). Right: Susan and Green McCord, about 1885. EI.1929.2222
On her family’s farm near McCordsville, Indiana, Susan Noakes McCord (1829-1909) made meals for her husband and children, cleaned the house, sewed and mended the family’s clothing, knitted accessories, cared for the chickens, milked cows, tended the vegetable and flower gardens, read her Bible through each year, and participated in community gatherings.
In her “spare” time, she also made exquisite quilts. Exceptional quilts.
This ordinary Indiana farmwife had an extraordinary genius for designing and making quilts. Her “palette?” Like other resourceful housewives of her time, Susan used materials that she had on hand: scraps of cotton prints or dress velvets left over from making her family’s clothing. She also cut usable fabric from the family’s worn-out clothing. Susan made some of her quilts in patterns then popular. And she likely used the flowers in her garden as further inspiration.
But what Susan created with these everyday materials, the inspiration she found around her, and her rich imagination was stunning. Susan could manipulate fabric, color, and design to turn a traditional quilt pattern into something extraordinary. Her workmanship was equally superb. She joined her quilt top, the layer of filling, and the backing with thousands of tiny, even stitches—averaging 10 to the inch.
Floral Urn by Susan McCord, about 1860. THF 95129
Susan’s Floral Urn quilt is reminiscent of album quilts made of large appliqué floral or wreath blocks that were popular during the mid-19th century. But Susan's version is exceptionally imaginative. Susan's love of gardening likely inspired the fuchsia, tulips, and daisies which spill whimsically from the urns.
Ocean Waves Quilt by Susan McCord, about 1880. THF 95131
This Ocean Waves quilt pattern was well-known in the late 19th century. But in Susan's hands the design is breathtakingly executed, formed of hundreds of tiny half-inch triangles cut from printed cotton fabrics. Susan finished the borders of this quilt with her unique meandering vines with colorful pieced leaves.
Fan Variation Quilt by Susan McCord, about 1900. THF 95136
In the late 19th century, decorative "crazy" quilts -- made from silk, velvet, and wool scraps stitched together "crazily" and embellished with embroidery -- were all the rage. This quilt is a variation of a crazy quilt design called fans. Most quilters placed a fan in just one corner of a block. Susan sewed fans of varying sizes in each corner. Then she joined the blocks together to form "wheels" that dazzle with a sense of motion and energy.
Vine Quilt by Susan McCord, 1880-1890. THF 95128
This stunningly beautiful quilt is Susan's masterpiece. This trailing vine design is a Mc original. Susan pieced together printed and solid cotton fabric scraps to create the over 300 leaves on each of the 13 vine panels. Susan used variations of this vine in the borders of several quilts. But Susan's vine design is rendered to perfection in this work of genius.
Do I sound like a member of the Susan McCord Fan Club? I am—along with hundreds of her other admirers.
The Henry Ford is fortunate to have 13 Susan McCord quilts in our collection. Explore more of Susan’s quilts through our digital collections.
Windham Fabrics has recently created a fabric collection inspired by Susan’s genius for quilt making--and by the printed fabrics that found their way from her humble scrap bag into her stunning creations. Take a look at our new Vine collection, along with two pattern ideas, to inspire your own genius today.
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.
farms and farming, women's history, quilts, making, design, by Jeanine Head Miller